8 Signs You May Be In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship
I was at the gym with a few new friends and opened up about how I had previously been in an abusive relationship. I mentioned something about knowing the red flags but when one of my friends asked what they were, my mind just went blank. I stumbled through a few but I had this realization that no one talks about these things. I mean I lived through this and still had trouble coming up with signs to look out for.
This always bothered me because maybe if I had seen more articles of women sharing the signs or had more open conversations with other women, I may have realized this much sooner. (There is no way of knowing this... I was in deep and way over my head.) But now when I share information, I almost always have women reach out to share a bit of their story so I know (and you should know) that we're not the only ones. This happens far too often and I'd hate myself if I didn't at least try to shed some light to help others.
So now that I have my wits about me, here's a look at just some of the red flags to be on the lookout for:
- They isolate you. You're often kept from the people that you are closest to. In my case, it was my family. I was constantly going to him prior to living together meaning I spent most of my free time with his friends and family and not mine. He almost refused to spend time with my family. At the time I didn't think much of this. I had a business and needed to go to his hometown often. Most of my friends lived in that area. But then one time, I told my mom an innocent comment he had made about his family and I got in so much trouble. I'm extremely close with my mom and I tell her just about everything. But when he got so upset over something I didn't think was a big deal, I started withholding information from my mom out of fear of starting another argument. Isolating me even further from her.
- They put you down. This may seem pretty obvious but in my case, it was extremely subtle so I didn't realize he was actually putting me down until much later. They were often little comments like "Why don't you do your hair like her?" "You should go to the gym." "You're wearing that?" And then other times he would actually put his hand under my chin and say "gobble gobble gobble" or jiggle the "fat" under my arms all under the guise of a joke. I knew I didn't like these comments when he made them but I often brushed them to the side as a joke or just knowing that I didn't have a "gobble chin". However, I didn't realize the bigger impact they would have on me. I didn't realize this was a way for him to control me. To make me feel insecure and self-conscious.
- They "love bomb" you. Love bombing is the act of showering you with attention and affection in the attempt to influence/control you. This most often happens at the very beginning of the relationship when things are new so you don't think this is weird. On our first date, he picked me up with flowers in hand and brought me to a very nice restaurant. Something I was absolutely not used to. Eight months into our relationship he bought me a diamond and ruby ring for no reason at all (we were in college... so this was not normal). I couldn't believe it. I had never been treated like this. But here's the thing with love bombing, it's not consistent and it's not because the person genuinely cares. They use it as a manipulation tactic and because it's hard to tell whether or not a person is genuine, it's really hard to decipher if this type of affection is love bombing or not. Here are some signs to look out for.
- They use gaslighting. This is probably the biggest red flag and the most damaging in my opinion (although like love bombing, it can be difficult to identify). Gaslighting is the act of manipulating someone by psychological means into questioning their own reality. The way they do this is basically by blatantly lying to your face over and over about something you know to be true until you start to question whether or not it actually is true. For example, when I told my ex I wanted to move to NYC with him, he was on board. We made plans. I moved down first with him quickly following a month later. But once we got settled there, he insisted that he never said wanted to move there, was completely miserable, and made it seem like all my fault that he was miserable. Most of our conversations consisted of him telling me I had a horrible memory or that I was imagining things. During these arguments, I often would think to myself that he was insane because I vividly remembering whatever we were discussing but he was so insistent that at the same time I started to question if it happened the way I thought it did. Did I interprete the situation completely wrong? This one tactic actually made it harder for me to leave once I decided I wanted to leave. I didn't trust my own instincts anymore. Was I making the right decision? Am I overreacting? It's extremely disorienting which is why they do it. Learn more about gaslighting here.
- They withhold affection. Similarly to putting you down, this is a manipulative tactic to control you and make you feel insecure. It is also arguably more effective because actions typically speak louder than words. Also, if they used love bombing in the beginning of your relationship this shift will be alarming and extremely hurtful to you. You'll constantly question whether you did something to upset them, whether they still find you attractive, or whether they like you at all. For me it started as simply as him telling me he didn't like PDA four years into our relationship. I could no longer kiss him in public. Then it moved to little to no affection in private even as I desperately tried to get his attention. The important thing to remember is it has absolutely nothing to do with you other than their need to control and manipulate you. This is just one way for them to break you down even further.
- They threaten physical violence. I know this is a given but for me, it was always done under the guise of a joke. We'd be joking around where I'd reach out to touch him or play "hit" him and he'd almost always grab it and either twist it in a very uncomfortable way or hold it in a threatening way. Then he's say to me, "You know I could break your arm right now." At the time, I just cast that red flag to the side. We were joking around, right? No. He took it to a really dark place and every time he did it I would actually think to myself, "Oh my God, he could actually break my arm right now." You should never be fearful of your significant other... joking or not. They may also threaten physical violence to pets, loved ones, or themselves. One of the times I tried breaking up with him he left around 6pm and didn't come home until 2am. I became seriously concerned he was going to harm himself and had to call some friends to make sure someone knew what was going on. I'm now convinced he did this to make me believe he was contemplating hurting himself so when he came home I'd take him back (which I did).
- They dismiss your feelings. Your feelings are never valid to them, especially if you're trying to voice a concern or your feelings about something they did. They will typically tell you that you're too sensitive or you're overreacting. This is their way to minimize their responsibility in the situation by changing the blame to be focused on you. But no one should ever dismiss your feelings. Your feelings are important and your partner should take them seriously. You're feeling these things for a reason and you should be able to have a meaningful, productive conversation about them with your partner.
- Your gut is telling you something is off. Your intuition is never wrong. An abusive partner will always try make you question yourself but deep down inside you will know something is off. And you'll definitely know something is off early on in the relationship. Don't brush those feelings to the side. Evaluate what is going on, why you feel off, and if there are other red flags you should be concerned about. I vividly remember early on in our relationship getting into a little argument. So little that I don't remember what it was about but he dismissed my feelings and then gave me the silent treatment the rest of the night. I went to bed crying (without him caring at all) and I laid there thinking to myself that if my car wasn't blocked by another in the driveway I'd get up and drive the hour home at midnight. I had never felt that intense of an urge to run from anything and I wished I had listened to my gut in that particular instance.
This isn't a complete list and I am by no means a professional expert but these are typically the most common tactics used in emotional abuse. Also, none of these things on their own necessarily constitute emotional abuse (but are very toxic behaviors you should absolutely avoid) but combine them all or just a few of these together and it's just a matter of time before you lose yourself, your sense of reality and you can't figure out which way is up. But the one thing I can tell you is it's not going to be easy to leave but it is absolutely 100% worth it.
If you are in this place, feel unsafe, or need help, please call 1-800-621-4673 or feel free to reach out to me.